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From biographies to satire, taking politicians by the book

There's one sure winner every election cycle: book publishers.

Voters today have an unprecedented array of information sources, from social media and internet news sites to TV and old-school newspapers.

But many of us still go to books to expand (or affirm) what we know about the candidates, and publishers are happy to fill that need with new political books every four years.

Most of those books are nonfiction (to some degree, at least). Somewhere in the territory between fiction and fact — let's call it mythmaking — lie candidates' own books, memoirs or political manifestos or some blend of the two. Sometimes such books have significant impacts; there's little doubt that Barack Obama's 2006 The Audacity of Hope, a No. 1 bestseller, helped to propel him into the White House.

THE ART OF POLITICS: Read more of our special report on the colors, design, movies, books, fashion and theater connected to the 2016 presidential race.

Both of this year's major party candidates have published many books. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's name appears as the author or co-author of 18 books; his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has written five. Both have had bestsellers, including Clinton's 1996 It Takes a Village, which has sold more than 650,000 copies, and Trump's The Art of the Deal, which since its publication 29 years ago has sold about a million copies. (Despite Trump's frequent claims that Art is the bestselling business book of all time, it's not. Steven Covey's 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has racked up sales of an estimated 25 million copies.)

The Art of the Deal has been back in the news of late since its co-author, Tony Schwartz, has criticized Trump in interviews as unqualified for the presidency. Schwartz compared the experience of writing the book based on interviews with Trump to putting "lipstick on a pig."

In response, Trump's lawyer demanded Schwartz write Trump a check for Schwartz's share of the royalties and half his advance. Said Schwartz, "It is axiomatic that when Trump feels attacked, he will strike back. That's precisely what's so frightening about his becoming president."

According to a report on Forbes.com in April, Trump's 2015 book Crippled America was outselling Clinton's most recent book, Hard Choices — but Ben Carson's A More Perfect Union was outselling both of them, even after Carson dropped out of the race in March.

Crippled America took a peculiar twist in the journey from hardback to paperback. Published in hardback in November, before the primaries began, it bore the dire title Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again and a cover photo of Trump scowling ferociously before a blurry background. The book, an expanded version of his stump speech talking points, spent some time on the bestseller lists and then was published in paperback in July, repackaged with a new, sunnier title and cover: Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America, with a photo of a smiling Trump in front of a big American flag.

Clinton did not publish a new book this election cycle; her most recent one is her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices, which focuses on her years as secretary of state and her complex relationship with the Obama administration. It's impressively substantive, indeed full of the trademark Clinton wonkiness about diplomacy and foreign affairs; it's not personally revealing. (When Clinton released her 2015 tax return on Aug. 12, it showed that her books and the four written by her husband earned them $3.1 million last year.)

Candidates' books can be interesting but are not, of course, the most objective sources of information; they are by nature self-promoting. But they tend to sell well to supporters who like to have their faith affirmed.

For similar reasons, negative books about candidates can sell well. Call it the echo chamber or confirmation bias, but readers often seek out books that support what they already believe, good or bad.

Many of the negative books about Trump seem to be mocking rather than angry, using humor to attack him, as in comedian Michael Ian Black's A Child's First Book of Trump, cartoonist Gary Trudeau's collection Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump and A--holes: A Theory of Donald Trump by Aaron James, a Harvard-educated philosophy professor.

Negative books about Clinton take a more apocalyptic bent, such as these current bestsellers: Dinesh D'Souza's Hillary's America predicts her election would plunge the country into decline, former Secret Service agent Gary Byrne's Crisis of Character recounts her alleged bad behavior in the White House during Bill Clinton's administration (although it has been debunked by other Secret Service agents), and the scarily titled Armageddon, by former Clinton adviser Dick Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann, offers a game plan for defeating her.

What if you'd like to step out of the echo chamber and read a book with relatively objective, detailed information about a candidate? My go-to genre is biographies, preferably those written by professional journalists and/or biographers who conduct intensive research and write about the entire arc of a person's life. Even when I think I know a lot about a candidate, such biographies always enrich my understanding and broaden my perspective.

This year, there are no new major biographies of Clinton. Perhaps publishers felt the market was saturated: There have already been more than 100 books (not counting children's books, scholarly studies and coloring books) published about Hillary and Bill Clinton, separately and together, and many of them are biographies.

When she first ran for president in 2008, several new biographies came out, notably Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. Both offer deeply researched and balanced portraits.

For a new book that covers the years since then, mostly her tenure as secretary of state, there is Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power by New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler. It delves into how Clinton and Obama forged a working relationship after the bruising 2008 primaries and looks at Clinton's interventionism, her role in the "pivot to Asia" and later disavowal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, her approach to Middle East policy and the complexities of the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.

Two new biographies of Trump are out, written on tight deadlines during his improbable rise through a crowded primary field. Trump Revealed: An American Story of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power, by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, will be published Tuesday. Kranish and Fisher are both staffers at the Washington Post, and the book is a joint effort by them and a team of more than two dozen award-winning reporters and researchers from the Post staff. In addition to their in-depth reporting, the book is based on more than 20 hours of interviews with Trump himself.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Cay Johnston's The Making of Donald Trump was published Aug. 2. Johnston, an investigative reporter, has known his subject since 1988 and covered him for three decades, interviewing him many times (and being threatened with more than one lawsuit by the litigious Trump). Johnston is also an expert on tax law who lectures on the subject at Syracuse University, and his understanding of financial matters illuminates Trump's complicated business career. Johnston notes that when The Art of the Deal was published in 1987, Trump promised all its royalties would go to the homeless, Vietnam veterans and those with AIDS and multiple sclerosis. There is no record of any such donations being made.

Both of these books carefully flesh out the details of Trump's known biography: his immigrant family background and fractious youth, his rejection of his father's lucrative business building low-cost housing for the glitz of becoming a developer in Manhattan, his messy marital history, his longtime associations with such figures as lawyer Roy Cohn (Joe McCarthy's right-hand man and attorney to many a Mob figure, he was a major Trump mentor), his rise and fall as a gambling mogul in Atlantic City, his carefully honed business methods that rely on selling his name to projects for which other people put up the money, his TV roles in reality shows and professional wrestling, his bankruptcies and his intense secretiveness about his true financial standing.

On the last, Kranish and Fisher write that when Trump was the subject of a 2011 Comedy Central roast, he told the host, "Don't say I have less money than I do. ... Make fun of my kids, do whatever you want. Just don't say that I don't have that much money."

Both Trump Revealed and The Making of Donald Trump cover similar ground. The former is carefully balanced and neutral in tone; Johnston is openly a Trump critic, but backs up his criticisms with solid documentation.

One valuable thing that thorough biographies can give us is a sense of persistent traits and patterns of behavior over the years. What emerges from the new Trump biographies is a picture of a man with commitment issues and a chameleonlike ability to remake himself — suggested by the fact that Trump changed political parties seven times between 1999 and 2012.

Trump Revealed notes his skill at repurposing with this full-page ad he bought in the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe:

"There's nothing wrong with America's Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can't cure. ... Tax these wealthy nations, not America. End our huge deficits, reduce our taxes and let America's economy grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of your freedom. Let's not let our great country be laughed at anymore."

Sound familiar? The ad ran in 1987, and Trump was criticizing Ronald Reagan, who had then been president for six years.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Literary politics

Novels inspired by politicians or campaigns may take years to appear in print. But the 2016 race has already gotten the attention of some notable writers of literary fiction.

The New York Times Magazine commissioned two short stories inspired by the election. The first, published in June, is The Arrangements, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah). It's a sly takeoff on Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, with Melania Trump as its main character. (A second story by a so-far unannounced writer will appear in the fall.)

The New Yorker sent short-story master George Saunders (Tenth of December) to cover a series of Trump rallies and interpret both the candidate and his supporters. The sobering, thoughtful result, "Trump Days," was published in July. In the August issue of Harper's, acerbic British novelist Martin Amis (The Zone of Interest) reviews two of Trump's books, The Art of the Deal (1987) and Crippled America (2015), eviscerating the author along the way.

From biographies to satire, taking politicians by the book 08/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 18, 2016 12:33pm]
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